[Editor’s note: Local author Tara McGuire launched her first book, ‘Holden After and Before,’ this week through Arsenal Pulp Press in Vancouver. Through fiction and non-fiction, McGuire explores the loss of her son Holden to drug overdose in 2015 and his imagined future. “I look at my book now as a continuation of our relationship,” she told Kevin Chong in a Tyee interview Tuesday. McGuire is holding a book launch event at the Polygon Gallery in North Vancouver Thursday. To RSVP, visit Arsenal Pulp’s events webpage. In this excerpt from ‘Holden After and Before,’ McGuire describes the day she found out that Holden died. This excerpt contains visceral descriptions of the shock of grief.]
I had just carried the shopping bags into the house and hoisted them onto the kitchen counter. Lyla was in her room with a stack of library books, fanning them out across her bed, deciding which one to read first. It was a quietly joyful thing to put away rice in the cupboard, yogurt in the fridge, chicken in the freezer. The jumbo pack of toilet paper meant we were staying. I set a small bouquet of flowers in a glass on the table — our table, the one Cam’s brother had made for us when we bought our first home. Boxes were stacked against the walls, but after 10 months of living out of a backpack, the idea of possessions didn’t interest me much.
The drastic time change blurred the edges of my vision, making me feel off balance. But I didn’t mind the one-glass-of-wine haze of jet lag; I knew the feeling would ease eventually. This time zone was our default. We were home.
Summer had gained a foothold, bringing a dense, trustworthy blue to the sky. The thin windows at the back of the low house were flung wide open, and gentle, warm air drifted in, carrying the scent of the wild pink roses climbing the chain-link fence at the edge of the yard. Tiny green apples were beginning to appear on the gnarled branches of the old apple tree. Later, we could all sit out there in the leafy shade and relax together in our circle of pink plastic Adirondack chairs.
I felt grateful.
Most importantly, Holden was here. We’d seen him once since we’d been back and had tentatively planned for him to come over for dinner that night after he finished work. I hadn’t heard from him in a couple of days, but he had a habit of just showing up. The anticipation of being able to reach over and touch Holden’s face while we talked made me feel like a teenager before a date. I was so lucky. We were home, where it was safe. Everything was going to be okay.
I’d exhaled with relief that day. It was just plain good to be home. Home, where we knew people well, and where people knew us. Where we could easily read the road signs and the labels at the grocery store. Where I could look at a bottle on a shelf and know for certain I was buying cranberry juice and not some kind of vinegar. Home, where we wouldn’t accidentally drive down a stairway thinking it was a street, or have to convert currency in our heads before buying mangoes. Home, where I could cultivate a new career, I hoped, as a writer. Home, where we could finally empty our backpacks, which had been stuffed and musty for nearly a year. Where I could pull on a pair of jeans that weren’t wrinkled and threadbare. Where I could choose from more than three shirts. Where we could drink the tap water.
I’d been busy ticking tasks off my list. We now had phone numbers, Wi-Fi and a rental car. We’d taken a fast trip to visit family, celebrate Canada Day, and reclaim our dog, Mocha, from my sister Janet in the far corner of the province, an eight-hour drive away. On the way back, my husband, Cam, had taken a detour to see his mother and brother — he’d be back tomorrow. He was driving the cherry-red Volkswagen Beetle convertible we’d just bought used from my sister (a car we sold shortly thereafter because I couldn’t tolerate its violent degree of cheerfulness).
At 11 years old, our daughter, Lyla, was bursting with the exuberant sweetness of a summer peach. After almost a year of travelling with her parents for constant company, being alone was a rare thrill; now she could hop on her bike and set off alone to cruise the quiet streets of our neighbourhood.
A knock on the front door drew my face away from the golden afternoon. Maybe it was a friend of Lyla’s, or a neighbour who’d heard we were back.
I opened the door to the dark bulk of a police officer in a bulletproof vest. I don’t remember his face or his name, but I can still see his heavy black boots on the flagstones of our porch, contrasting with my bare feet on our tired hardwood floor. Lyla bounced up behind me, hoping it was someone who’d jump on the trampoline with her. Mocha crowded the doorway, too. She barked at his uniform. At the hat he was removing.
He stood there, imposing yet awkward, not knowing what to do with his hands. He asked me in a monotone to confirm my name.
Please come outside, I think he said, so we can speak privately. He gestured toward Lyla with his chin. He didn’t want her to hear.
In my jet-lagged fog, I didn’t suspect why he already knew who I was and wanted to speak with me. A flash: perhaps there had been a break-in in the neighbourhood, and he wanted to warn me to close the windows at night. But we were home now — how could anything bad happen?
I didn’t know this was to be the last moment of peace I’d experience for a very, very long time.
Just wait here a sec, Ly.
I took a few steps out into the sunshine of the driveway. Heat rose from the paving stones, sandy grit rubbed the soles of my feet, and the sun settled on my bare shoulders. Standing in the middle of the driveway, between the lush green forest with its bubbling creek and the leafy Spanish chestnut tree, the officer held his hat to his chest with both hands, like a shield.
What happened next unspooled quickly.
The quiet just before he spoke expanded and snapped back.
I should have asked for his bulletproof vest.
I’m very sorry to inform you that your son, Holden, has died.
I took one last full breath and dropped. A clean amputation. I curled like a fetus on the ground and felt my life jerk sideways off its axis. The earth fell away. I plummeted. And as I fell, I also rose. I could see myself writhing on the driveway, gasping for air. Anyone passing by would have thought I had been shot at close range.
The officer’s voice filled the gaps in my wailing. I probably heard words and must have asked questions, but the answers landed like snow, touching me and dissolving; they were abstract, they didn’t mean anything.
I’m so sorry… no sign of foul play… don’t have that information… the coroner will investigate… I’m very sorry… no sign of criminal activity… he was with a friend… trauma team… can we reach your husband?… how long will it take him to get here?… I’m very sorry… no, it’s not a mistake… in the morgue… in Burnaby… because the Vancouver morgue is full… I don’t know … yes, I’m sure… yes, it’s true… yes… no… yes.
Falling. Falling. Bottomless.
My memory of this time is fractured and likely inaccurate.
Lyla ran outside and kneeled down beside me on the flagstones.
Momma, what’s happening? Her eyes stretched wide with panic. Her smooth, young face knowing terror for the first time.
I’m so sorry, Ly, it’s Holden. He... he.... How could I smash her small, simple world? I pulled her into my arms. He died, sweetheart. Your brother is gone. I’m so so sorry.
We held each other on the driveway, vines encircling, wrapping, clinging to each other. We rocked back and forth. We cried. Could someone please tell me what to do?
The police officer paced around us at arm’s length, keeping a safe distance. I don’t know if it was out of respect or fear. We were something wild, desperate, unpredictable. We might pull him under.
Eventually, he stood in the living room. A sentinel.
I’m very sorry for your loss. Who can we call to be with you right now?
I didn’t want the police in this with us. I didn’t want to be part of something that required uniforms, strangers, protocol. But Cam wasn’t home.
I called him myself. I don’t know what words I said. I remember it as the moan of a wounded animal.
He knew to come.
Next I called Holden’s father. I’m not sure why I didn’t let the police officer do it. I supposed that I felt he should hear the words from me. We had created Holden together, with love, with optimism, and we would now share the weight of utter devastation.
It’s… it’s… Holden. My body didn’t understand breathing. This voice belonged to someone else, I could not be saying these words. I heard myself whisper. The police are here.
I had nothing left to hold on to.
My vision of that evening is obscured. The perspective is disorienting and comes back to me in shards. Each one lands with a different impact.
I called a dear friend: Can you come? Please. Right now. I need you. I didn’t tell her why. Couldn’t say the words.
No one in uniform. Take your hand off my back. No strangers.
Another close friend walked in saying Cam had called him, had asked him to stay with us. He was a tough construction worker used to operating heavy tools. Sullen face, downcast. I’ll stay until Cam can get here. Grey eyes wet and aflame. I’m here for whatever you need. I’m just so sorry.
Somehow Holden’s father was in the living room. No no no. Embrace. Surrender. Sob.
Where is Holden? Please. Where could he have gone?
My mother arrived, pale, wet, sagging. There may have been others. There were certainly others. Where is Lyla? How do I explain this to Lyla? How do I comfort her? Help me. Leave me. Stay with me. Go away. No. I don’t understand.
People spoke. I heard them through a shroud, a foreign language.
Like the illuminated windows of a passing train, images flashed by. Tears. Bare feet. Vomit. Warm air, too warm. Thirst. Then dark. Cold. Lying on the rug, shivering under a blanket. Phones ringing. Bing, bing, bing. Car doors. Footsteps. Voices. Whispers. Water.
A blanket was covering my face. Is there a blanket on Holden’s face? Curl away from it. Curl into it. Into what? It’s too late for protection.
I called Cam again. Please come home. Why are you taking so long? Why are you not here? Why are you gone? Why are there so many kinds of gone?
That day, large forest fires in the British Columbia Interior blocked the main highways, the most direct route home. Cam’s brother drove with him. Many hours in the wrong direction, circumnavigating the province to find a way back. To us. To the us that was left.
Outside the car, the air they passed through was thick, ash-snowed, acrid with smoke. Inside the car, silent heat, darkness. It was almost midnight when Cam walked into our house, an older version of himself. He gathered Lyla and me into his strong arms, and we wept.
We were three now. Only three.
Please make it not be true, I pleaded to Cam. I just want it to be not true.
All he could do was sit beside us, his bones holding us steady, and nod.
Excerpted from ‘Holden After and Before: Love Letter for a Son Lost to Overdose’ by Tara McGuire. Copyright © 2022 Tara McGuire. Published by Arsenal Pulp Press. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.